The Skinny on Slim-jims

May 01, 2007 9:30 PM  By

A steep postal rate hike in 1991 sent catalogers scurrying for cost-cutting options. “I called my production guy in,” recalls Steve Tamke, who at the time was vice president of marketing for bookseller Barnes & Noble, which published a print catalog as well as owned a chain of stores. “He says there’s this thing called a slim-jim catalog, but it looks weird. We had one costed out and looked at what we could save on postage. It actually ended up working for us at Barnes & Noble just as well as a full-format catalog.”

Sixteen years later, catalog marketers are again seeking to cut costs in the face of a steep postal rate hike, and one option many of them are exploring is converting their full-size catalogs to a slim-jim. But while producing and mailing a slim-jim catalog can be appreciably cheaper than doing so for a standard-size book, slim-jims can also depress response, and subsequently revenue.

As Tamke, now senior vice president of Hackensack, NJ-based list services firm Mokrynskidirect, notes, Barnes & Noble was “an exception. All we had to get on that page were postage-stamp-size book covers. We also kept the same number of square inches.” But for many catalog merchants, switching to a slim-jim is much more complex.

Slimming down

Dimensions for slim-jim catalogs are roughly 6-1/8″ × 11-1/2″ and 1/4″ thick. To qualify for conventional letter size rates, the books must weigh 3 oz. or less. In addition to these rates, there is a subclass referred to by the U.S. Postal Service as Heavy Letters for books weighing more than 3 oz. and up to 3.5 oz. that are placed in envelopes. If a book weighs more than 3 oz. and less than 3.3 oz., it still qualifies for letter rates. If a book weighs more than 3.3 oz. and up to 3.5 oz., it will qualify for a hybrid rate that is still significantly below flat rates. Any book over 3.5 oz., even if it is enveloped, will be mailed at flat rates.

Tom Hayes, vice president of business development for Chicago-based printer R.R. Donnelley, says there has been “a lot of interest” in slim-jim catalogs in light of the new postal rates set for May 14. “We expect people to really evaluate this because they’re looking for ways to continue to keep circulation up. We anticipate a lot of testing,” he says. “The savings are substantial.”

How substantial? Hayes says that by switching from a standard-size catalog, a.k.a. a flat, weighing less than 3.0 oz. to a slim-jim, under the new rates you could save roughly $0.10 per book, or $100/M, in postage.

“The big challenge is that not all catalogs are conducive to this form from a layout perspective,” Hayes says. “We are encouraging customers who are currently mailing flats that weigh 3 oz. or less to consider testing one of the letter-size formats.”

One business that might opt for a slim-jim is Lady Grace Stores, a cataloger/retailer of women’s intimate apparel. “We’re definitely interested, and the costs are significantly less,” says Bruce Green, chief financial officer and part owner of the Malden, MA-based merchant. Depending on test results, Green says, the company might look at a slim-jim catalog for its regular customers and a full-size catalog for prospecting.

Lady Grace mails about 3.5 million catalogs a year. The current edition is 44 pages.

“It sounds like we’re looking at a postage increase of at least 20%,” Green says. “That’s a really hefty figure. With our circulation, it’s not too hard to figure out that it’s going to be a significant increase for us to continue what we’re doing.”

In recent years, Green says, the company’s catalog circulation has increased about 12% annually. “Without the slim-jim, we’d probably be forced to cut circulation 5%-10%, which could put us in a potentially negative spiral.”

Then again, if switching to a slim-jim hurts response, as is often the case, that could be just as damaging to the company. “When I hear we can expect a 20%-25% drop in our response rates, then it gives me cause for caution,” says Green.

Bigger is sometimes better

There are no statistics regarding the response rates for slim-jims vs. flats. But printers and consultants agree that reduced response often results from a switch to the smaller format.

“The concern with slim-jim catalogs is they’re smaller and can get lost in the shuffle in the mailbox, and they look like a letter and not a catalog,” Hayes says.

Glenda Shasho Jones, president of Shasho Jones Direct, a New York-based catalog consulting firm, goes so far as to say that switching to slim-jims could be “traumatic” for recognizable brands. For one thing, “there is less merchandise on the pages,” she says.

One way to mitigate that drawback, says Mokrynskidirect’s Tamke, is to keep the same number of square inches when switching to a slim-jim catalog. “We had a 48-page full-size book that we turned into a 72-page slim-jim,” he says, referring to Barnes & Noble in 1991. “Most people didn’t do that. They’d try to squeeze a 48-page full-size catalog into a 48-page slim-jim, which turned out to be a creative nightmare. Or they cut items. It ended up a disaster for many people in the industry.”

Even if you retain the same number of square inches, you’ll have to modify your creative. And as Bruce Jensen, vice president of U.S. sales for Montreal-based printer Transcontinental’s Catalog and Magazine Group, notes, slim-jim catalogs don’t offer the same “landscape to present certain product categories as well as a full-size catalog.” Jensen believes that products needing a “larger visual display,” such as furniture and clothing, are likely better suited for the standard-size format.

Then, too, “consumers react differently to product offerings in slim-jims,” says Jones. “Maybe it’s more psychological, because more low-end catalogs tend to use the slim-jim. The higher-end catalogs would only use slim-jims for sale books.”

Perhaps the greatest drawback to slim-jims, however, are the tabs. To qualify for letter rates, slim-jims must be closed with two tabs. “And tabbing catalogs shut prevents people from browsing,” says Anita Pursley, vice president of postal affairs for Montreal-based printer Quebecor World, “which could be a negative impact on response rates.”

“I know that sounds picky, but think about it,” says Jensen. “When you pick up a regular catalog it opens up easily, and you have a tendency to look through it quickly. A tabbed catalog needs to be opened and gives the reader a different initial look when they get it in the mail. The other issue is the tabs themselves tearing the catalog cover or just making the cover look not as clean as one that doesn’t have tabs.”

Because of concerns about lower response, among other factors, “we are trying to keep clients from converting their catalogs to letter-size if possible,” says Joe Schick, director of postal affairs for Sussex, WI-based printer Quad/Graphics.

In a message it recently sent to clients, Quad/Graphics warned catalogers thinking of making the switch to keep in mind “incremental manufacturing and distribution costs” they would incur, such as the cost to tab the slim-jims and the “higher freight rate for drop-shipping tray-based mail.” Other considerations include “the cost of new creative design and pagination” and the “need for resizing of images or new photography.”

Examining alternatives

In making a dramatic change in trim size, “there are so many factors to consider,” Schick says. “We don’t want clients making knee-jerk decisions that could actually hurt their business and in the end cost them more.”

Consultant Jones, who admits to not being a big fan of slim-jim catalogs, says that for some catalogers they may be the way to remain in business. But she advises considering other options before making a switch.

“Some people just haven’t been as aggressive with smart mailing or merge/purge, and this is definitely a time to get aggressive with those things,” she says.

“One of the easiest things to do,” Jones continues, is to switch to a lighter-weight paper. “It’s less expensive, and I’ve never heard of response rates being affected by a switch to lighter paper.” She also suggests negotiating more aggressively with vendors in all areas of your business and scrutinizing your circulation strategy. “See if you can mail fewer times a year or make other changes but still get the same bang for your buck.”

Schick is advising catalogers to make database management a priority and to personalize messages and contact strategies to maximize the value of their mailings and boost response rates.

“We’re trying to get everyone to focus on looking at their process from address quality to distribution to find all the pennies that can be saved,” Schick says. “Look at designing the mail piece to ensure you don’t fall into a nonmachinable category. Look at mailing to the right people with the right message and product at the right time. Look at utilizing comail to ensure the finest presort, and look for ways to maximize the amount of mail that will qualify for drop-ship rates to reduce postage while getting more consistent and predictable delivery.”

“In my mind, changing the size of a catalog is a last-ditch solution,” Jones says. “You have to evaluate the kind of difference a slim-jim would have on your business compared against the uptake you’ll receive on the postal side.”

Tamke, too, advises mailers to investigate other options first. “The size that tends to work best is the full-size format,” he says. “That is one of the main reasons we see very few slim-jim catalogs.”

By the booklet

Slim-jims are considered booklets by the U.S. Postal Service, and as such they fall under the “letter mail” category, says Joe Schick, director of postal affairs for printer Quad/Graphics.

To qualify for automated machinable letter mail rates, a booklet must:

  • weigh no more than 3.0 oz.
  • have two tab closures
  • have outer paper stock of at least 50 lbs.
  • must have the address running parallel to the longest side.
  • have a trim size with an aspect ratio between 1.3 and 2.5. (Aspect ratio is calculated by dividing the longer dimension by the shorter dimension.)
  • have be at least 3-1/2″ × 5″ and 0.007″ thick and no bigger than 6-1/8″ × 11-1/2″ and 0.25″ thick.

If a booklet letter piece meets all of the above criteria except the weight and weighs between 3.0 oz. and 3.3 oz., it will be classified as a non-automation machinable letter and have a higher postage rate. “Any mail piece exceeding 3.3 oz.,” Schick adds, “will be classified as a not-flat machinable mail piece and will incur rates at least 50% higher.“